The United States faces a strategic challenge requiring urgent action. Given current threat trajectories, our nation will soon encounter a fundamentally different global setting than it has ever experienced: we will face a world where two nations possess nuclear arsenals on par with our own. In addition, the risk of conflict with these two nuclear peers is increasing. It is an existential challenge for which the United States is ill-prepared, unless its leaders make decisions now to adjust the U.S. strategic posture.
The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States was established by the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and concludes that America’s defense strategy and strategic posture must change in order to properly defend its vital interests and improve strategic stability with China and Russia. Decisions need to be made now in order for the nation to be prepared to address the threats from these two nuclear armed adversaries arising during the 2027-2035 timeframe. Moreover, these threats are such that the United States and its Allies and partners must be ready to deter and defeat both adversaries simultaneously.
The Commission concludes the Iranian regime will maintain a nuclear program as part of its strategic goals for enhancing security, prestige, and regional influence. This includes pursuit of nuclear energy and the capability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons.
If Iran decides to do so, it could field advanced longer-range missile systems in the 2027-2035 timeframe. Iran will also pose a credible theater missile threat as a key non-nuclear capability.
The Threat from Iran, 2027-2035
Strategy and Doctrine. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s national security strategy aims to ensure continuity of clerical rule, maintain stability against internal and external threats, secure Iran’s position as a dominant regional power, and achieve economic prosperity. While Tehran recognizes it cannot conventionally compete with the United States, it is pursuing multiple avenues to compensate. These include accelerating its nuclear program, expanding its conventional, proxy and partner forces, emphasizing asymmetric tactics, and leveraging relations with Russia and China. Tehran has gone so far as to provide materiel support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Iran continues to act aggressively and threaten U.S. interests, U.S. forces, and U.S. Allies and partners in the region.
Iran views the United States as its greatest enduring threat and believes the United States is engaged in a covert and “soft war” to subvert the regime, undermining what Iran perceives as its rightful place as a regional power. Many regime elites view regional dynamics through the lens of perceived U.S. aggression.
Nuclear Capabilities. The Commission’s assessment is that the United States must consider the possibility that Iran will become a nuclear state during the 2027-2035 timeframe. Iran is likely not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons design and development activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device; however, the time estimated for Iran to achieve sufficient fissile material continues to shorten, as Iran is accelerating the expansion of its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran conducted research into uranium metal production and has produced small quantities of uranium metal enriched up to 20 percent. Iran continues to increase the size and enrichment level of its uranium stockpile beyond what were the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limits and continues to exceed restrictions on advanced centrifuge research and development and is continuing uranium enrichment operations at its Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. In March 2023, the IAEA revealed that it had found traces of enriched uranium that was just shy of weapons-grade level at a facility in Iran. Iran also has been enriching and accumulating uranium hexafluoride (UF6) enriched up to 60 percent U-235 and continues to accumulate UF6 enriched to 20 percent.
Ballistic Missiles. Iran’s ballistic missiles constitute a primary component of its strategic deterrent. Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries. Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which already include the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region, continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East. Its missiles can range U.S. forces and bases and population centers of U.S. partners in the region. They can also reach to parts of Southern Europe. Iran has emphasized improving accuracy, lethality, and reliability of its missiles. It lacks ICBMs, but Tehran’s desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to develop and eventually field an ICBM. Iran’s work on space launch vehicles shortens its timeline to have an ICBM if it decides to develop one.
Cyber. Iran’s growing expertise and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations make it a major threat to the security of U.S/allied networks and data. Tehran views cyber operations as a safe, low-cost method for retaliation and believes it must demonstrate it can push back against the United States in other domains. It has shown a willingness to target countries such as Israel that have stronger capabilities.
Chemical and Biological Weapons. Iran is a party to both the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Iran is in noncompliance with the CWC, and there are concerns that Iran may be pursuing central nervous system-acting chemicals and pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes.